Small players, big games

Print edition : May 31, 2013

Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati. Photo: PTI

Samajwadi Party president Mulayam Singh Yadav. Photo: PTI

WHILE the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have been scoring brownie points against each other on issues that affect the common man, the smaller parties that prop up the United Progressive Alliance government, especially the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), have failed to react in a convincing manner to the controversies that have put the government, and specifically the Congress, in a bind. Obviously, they are hamstrung by their own compulsions, and political expediency overrides everything else.

After the exit of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (18 MPs) and the Trinamool Congress (19 MPs) from the UPA government, the S.P. and the BSP, whose 22 and 21 members respectively in the Lok Sabha offered outside support, had an opportunity to dictate an agenda that worked well politically for them and was also in the larger interest of the people. Both parties, instead, ended up looking like wheeler-dealers extracting favours from the Congress in return for support to the government.

According to political observers, the virtual silence of the two parties on the opposition demand for the resignations of the Law Minister, the Railway Minister and the Prime Minister made their own political positions tenuous. “These two parties, if they wanted, could have extracted the resignations, which would have made them look very honourable, at least on the issue of corruption. But since they themselves face all sorts of corruption charges, they could do nothing,” said Shaibal Gupta of the Asian Development Research Institute, a non-governmental organisation active in analysing the political situation in the country.

His contention, interestingly, is corroborated by S.P. chief Mulayam Singh Yadav himself. Speaking at a function in Lucknow recently, he admitted that taking on the Congress was not easy as it could send the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to hound those who tried that and bring trumped-up charges against them.

Both Mulayam Singh and BSP supremo Mayawati preferred to err on the side of caution when it came to attacking the government. While Mulayam Singh was talking of Chinese incursions into Indian territory when the entire opposition was baying for the blood of the Law Minister and the Railway Minister, Mayawati preferred to remain ambivalent, only asserting that her party’s stand to support the UPA government was an old one and there was no change in that irrespective of the changed situation. “The decision to support the UPA government is an old one, so why debate it now,” said Dara Singh Chauhan, BSP leader in the Lok Sabha.

D.P. Tripathi, Rajya Sabha member of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), admitted that the smaller parties had failed to play a proactive role in the present crisis. The NCP, with nine members in the Lok Sabha, is a partner in the UPA. It was seen to be ambivalent in its attitude to the corruption charges against the government and the resultant logjam in Parliament. “The role of the smaller parties is very restricted. It is the responsibility of the biggest party, in this case the Congress, to ensure that Parliament functions smoothly and that every party, including the opposition, is carried along in the process. The Congress failed to ensure this,” he said. The NCP’s own leaders in Maharashtra, where the party runs a coalition government with the Congress, face serious corruption charges.

Parties like the S.P., the BSP and the NCP have always calculated the gains that would accrue to them in allowing the government to continue despite criticising it severely on various occasions. “What do we gain even if we withdraw support to the government? In any case, it is only a matter of months before the Lok Sabha elections take place, so why upset the applecart?” says Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has called the UPA government immoral, ineffective and incompetent.

Asked whether he was not protecting the government by diverting attention from the scams involving coal blocks allocation and appointments in the Railways by raising the issue of Chinese incursions, Mulayam Singh said the country came first. “Only if the country remains can coal be mined,” he reasoned.

According to a senior BSP leader, withdrawing support at this juncture was ruled out because it could be projected as playing into the BJP’s hands, which would antagonise the party’s huge Muslim vote base, to the benefit of the S.P. But will such inaction not lead to the erosion of these parties’ support bases, especially at the time of the general election, if they are perceived to be ineffective at crucial times? “That is not likely to happen because they remain extremely tangible and credible units in their areas of operation, and that is not likely to change,” said one political analyst.

Shaibal Gupta said that despite their limited roles and relevance, the regional parties were likely to continue occupying their political space because the two main national parties had almost become defunct in the areas where they held sway. “Besides, there is so much disenchantment against both the Congress and the BJP that people are looking for alternatives, and wherever alternatives are available, as in the case of the Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka, people have opted for them,” he said.

In such a situation, is there any possibility of a new third front emerging after the Lok Sabha elections, as the S.P. chief keeps claiming? “Such fronts are generally post-election phenomena and the possibility cannot be ruled out because neither the Congress nor the BJP will get a majority,” says Mulayam Singh. He remains hopeful that smaller parties all over India will emerge as a strong force post-election in 2014 and form the government.

But the credibility and durability of such governments have been low. “Durability can be an issue, but such governments are known to be working for the people,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav, who has toiled hard to bring about a loose coalition of non-Congress, non-BJP parties. However, the credibility of both the Congress and the BJP is at an all-time low, and this gives rise to the hope that regional players, despite being seen as ineffective right now, may again play an important role.

Purnima S. Tripathi

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